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Losing Shangri-La? The Environmental Degradation of Kathmandu

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By most accounts, Kathmandu is a medieval city nestled between two main rivers called Bagmati and Bishnumati. Also known as Kantipur, it is the largest of the three major cities in the Kathmandu valley, the other two being Patan (Lalitpur) and Bhadgaon (Bhaktapur). Kathmandu is the capital and cultural hearth of Nepal, a country invariably viewed by Westerners as a Shangri-La, an alluring piece of imaginative geography. Imaginative geography is more than a mental map with its own distorted lines and vexed contours. It is more than a cultural landscape with definable characteristics that are produced and reproduced through a series of interactions between people and their physical environment. It is a distinct creation of what Bishop calls “cultural fantasy-making”— a place filled with fantasies, a place of mythical proportions.2 It is, in other words, a cultural sanctuary imagined to be sacred no matter how “strange” and “bewildering” it may be. But Kathmandu is choking, today, on the exhaust of its own modern march: environmental pollution. So severe is the problem of pollution that it not only poses a serious threat to the very tourist industry that sustains its march of modernity, but also to public health.